Frank Langella is Richard M. Nixon, the 37th President of the United States and his towering portrayal of our disgraced leader is at the center of the briskly entertaining new play Frost/Nixon by Peter Morgan. In his story, Morgan dramatizes the account of the 1977 television interviews between the TV personality David Frost and the post Watergate Nixon as a winner take all prize fight between two hungry opponents. Michael Sheen playing Frost is Langella’s worthy adversary and watching the two consummate actors go at each other with all the skills in their arsenal is thrilling indeed.
Screenwriter Peter Morgan has established an outstanding reputation for his smart docudramas chronicling real life monarchs, and just took on England’s current Queen in last season’s film The Queen, which earned an Academy Award for Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II. Frost/Nixon is his first foray into the theater, and while the play suffers from too much direct audience narration, and too many scenes of heavy exposition, his detailed fictionalized account does give a fascinating, believable look into the background negotiations for the historic confrontation, as well as a memorable look at the actual taping, where the British talk show host turns the tables on the once mighty President snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
What is most compelling about the evening, however, is not the simplistic drama but the performances and the stark staging that is often dominated by a huge television screen projecting the action. We watch Nixon making a speech from the Oval office with his advisors surrounding him in the background, and the image the American people are watching at home on TV is seen on the huge screen overhead.
The British Director Michael Grandage making his Broadway debut handles Frost/Nixon with skilled assurance, drawing beautifully nuanced work from the lead actors. He moves the evening with polished precision to their studio clash, where two television cameras record the action live creating a powerful juxtaposition of images that are then displayed on the huge overhead screen.
The supporting players in the respective Frost/Nixon camp of advisors are wonderful, but Stephen Kunken as Jim Reston, the writer on Frost’s team that discovered the smoking gun that Frost would use in the final television clash to get Nixon is excellent. He also has the difficult assignment of delivering much of the detailed information directly to the audience.
Playing David Frost, the superficial talk show host, Michael Sheen, who was Tony Blair in the film “The Queen,” is perfect. He is a rising British star and an accomplished stage actor, whose staring performance as Caligula in the Donmar Warehouse Production was well received by the London critics. His Frost is burdened with self doubts and his own insecurities, but hungry with ambition. He struggles to hide behind a happy go lucky exterior that occasionally cracks. We see the effort and feel the sacrifice. He is an ideal foil with an easy winning charm that counter balances Langella beautifully.
Mr. Langella’s work here is the sort that Legends are built on and he delivers a once in a lifetime performance. The actor needs no introduction to Broadway audiences having been a star ever since his sexy turn as Dracula in the 1970’s. A steady hard working actor he was inducted into the 2003 Theatre Hall of Fame and his numerous awards include two Tonys and five Drama Desks. He is always extraordinary, but his richly detailed larger than life portrait of Nixon is absolutely mesmerizing. He commands attention on his first entrance and you immediately feel he is too large, but then quickly realize this is Nixon working hard to charm whoever might be in his immediate sphere. Especially sensitive three years after Watergate, Nixon harbored deep anger and resentments that he tried to disguise, but the social graces did no come easily to him. A terribly self conscious man because of his size and looks, he also suffered with tremendous insecurities and never felt deserving. Langella builds a richly detailed larger than life portrayal that accumulates with breathtaking force to a shattering conclusion, a glimpse into the tortured soul of this broken man. The haunting image in extreme close-up is simultaneously projected overhead on a huge television screen that has been divided into a grid of 36 televisions giving the impression of a desolate Nixon behind bars. .
Frost/Nixon originated at the Donmar Warehouse, where the play was a sold out hit and subsequently transferred to London’s West End winning an Evening Standard Award before coming to Broadway. Frost/Nixon will eventually be made into a major motion picture by Ron Howard with Broadway’s Frank Langella reprising his Nixon.
gordin & christiano
Originally Published on Hamptons.com
Frost/Nixon opened on April 22, 2007 at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenues. Tickets are available by calling Telecharge.com at 212-239-6200 or at the box office.